With a strange history and an unusual assortment of tracks, Who guitarist Pete Townshend's first solo album still offers plenty of joy.
Who Came First: 45th Anniversary Expanded Edition
20 April 2018
Technically Pete Townshend's first solo release, 1972's Who Came First doesn't make sense in all sorts of ways. First, it has a silly title still playing on the name of his band the Who and a silly cover positing Townshend as a chicken before (or after) the egg, and yet it's a deeply spiritual mostly avoiding humor and probing real issues. It's also not really a Townshend album in that it's full of collaboration and compiles material from previous collaborative albums created in tribute to spiritual guide Meher Baba. On a search for enlightenment, Who Came First is less a koan and more a source of discographical confusion. In honor of all that weirdness, we're getting a 45th-anniversary edition that comes out 46 years later. Fortunately, it does such a good job archiving the strangeness that's it's worth the effort.
The album itself, regardless of categorization, doesn't suffer from the surrounding weirdness, though it does at times feel a little trapped in a particularly 1960s/1970s sort of spirituality. The songs themselves hold up as some of the finest from Townshend's solo work (though it would take another eight years for his finest album, Empty Glass, to arrive). Townshend was in peak songwriting mode, smack in the midst of an incredible run of albums from 1967's The Who Sell Out to 1973's Quadrophenia. That vision and artistry carry through here.
A third of the album's nine tracks are outtakes from the Lifehouse project, which would eventually yield Who's Next. Townshend's creativity had reached such a peak that the unused tracks from that album (which would appear here and there in various forms for years) would have made for one of the best albums of the era. In these solo forms, they're each strong, but "Pure and Easy" makes its claim as the best Townshend/Who song that hasn't become a classic radio staple. It's got a gorgeous melody, an appropriate level of tension, and a spiritual exploration that hits.
The album's closing two numbers meditate more deeply, with mixed success. Townshend's "Parvardigar" (based on a Meher Baba's prayer) relies on its beautiful sound and heartfelt offering. "Content" drags a little, a Maud Kennedy poem put to music that requires a particular sort of investment and feels twice its length. The album's not completely written with eyes uplifted and palms out. "There's a Heartache Following Me" unexpectedly brings the old Jim Reeves song to life (though given Meher Baba's enjoyment of the song and Townshend's appreciation of artist like Marty Robbins, it makes more sense upon consideration). "Sheraton Gibson" breezily captures homesickness with a memorable hook.
The specter of Small Faces/Faces member and Meher Baba devotee Ronnie Lane floats around this album (in part because he'd join Townshend five years later for Rough Mix). His "Evolution" (a variation on the Faces' "Stone") manages to combine enticing guitar work, a goofy sensibility, and reflections on spiritual development into a single pop song bounce. Townshend's extended version of it on this expanded release's second rejuvenates the song and pays tribute to a departed friend.
It's that bonus track as well as the rest of the second disc that will entice long-time fans. The challenge for die-hard Townshend fans is that, between reissues and the Scoop series, the songwriter has already put out so many of his demos and outtakes. We might not need yet another version of "Begin the Beguine" (really, we don't), but there always seem to be more to pull out. About half of these 17 recordings are previously unreleased, and even these are mostly fan-focused alternate takes that merely upgrade the 2006 reissue of the album. A 1976 rendition of "Drowned" recorded in India provides the highlight. Townshend's solo acoustic reworkings of the song bring out the energy and depth of the writing. This version takes on some extra speed and offers new insight into the track, the excitement of reaching a spiritual depth. Townshend sounds fired up and joyful, much as he does on his "Evolution" tribute to Lane.
That sort of mood permeates the album. For an artist known for capturing teenage (and then middle-age) angst, Townshend sounds unusually happy everywhere, and that illuminates the original disc, too. The liner notes, written by Townshend, support that idea. He says that "listening to these songs has made me happy this time around." The expanded set makes that clear.
The notes are part of the high-quality packaging of this more-or-less anniversary edition Townshend's essay properly contextualizes not only the album as a whole but also each track. The set includes a poster of the "wave" painting from the original LP. The notes, the photos, the poster, and the oversized packaging create an immersive experience. With a string of these reissues on the way, Who Came First makes a good case for the continuing excavation of Townshend's vaults. More important, it makes a good case for going back to this first record, however you want to classify it.
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